04/02/2021

So You Wanna Be A Beekeeper?

26:47 minutes

a person wearing a full-body white beekeeper outfit complete with veil and yellow gloves bends over their bee houses and pulls out a tray of honeycomb as bees swirl in the foreground and blue skies in the background
Credit: Shutterstock

Pollinators are one of our favorite things at Science Friday, and caring for our local bees means caring for the environment. While we can plant native wildflowers for our native wild bees, some pollinator enthusiasts may want to go the next step and care for their own honey bee hive. So how do you get started?

Joining Ira to talk about tips for amateur beekeepers are Timothy Paule Jackson and Nicole Lindsey, beekeepers and co-founders of Detroit Hives, an organization that turns vacant lots into honey bee farms in Detroit, Michigan. They’re also joined by SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky, a first-time beekeeper. They discuss how to dive into this buzzy world, setting up your hive, and troubleshooting problems with pests.

Check out some photos from Dankosky’s new adventure with bees.

two people - one wearing a beekeeping suit and one in plain clothes - crouch over beekeeping materials in the dirt
First-time backyard beekeeper Jen Dankosky gets tips from expert Bill Domonell during an installation at his home in Connecticut. Photo: John Dankosky
a figure stands in jeans and a white beekeeping top with a hood and veil, against a forest backdrop
John Dankosky’s first time in a “bee suit” Photo: Jen Dankosky

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Segment Guests

Nicole Lindsey

Nicole Lindsey is a beekeeper and Co-founder of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan.

Timothy Paule Jackson

Timothy Paule Jackson is a beekeeper and Co-founder of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We sure love our bees here on this program, from our native pollinators to our honeybees. While many of us lucky enough to have outdoor space can plant wildflowers for our pollinators, sometimes you just want to go one step further, start your own beehive, like SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky. Hi, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Ira, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: And I want to know, you’re diving into the world of beekeeping this spring.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I am. Although I should say I’m more of a deputy beekeeper, really. My wife has been wanting to do this for many years. And I’m just trying to learn everything I can to help her out. I have to say, Ira, I’m getting over a pretty healthy fear of getting stung by bees. And I’m putting on a bee suit for the first time. So yeah, this is a big step for me.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that is. There are some hobbies where I can imagine you can easily jump in and learn on the fly– maybe painting, for example. But beekeeping seems like something you really need to prepare for on a really different level.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, there’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot of equipment to buy. And what I found is that everyone has advice. Everyone who’s kept bees has a lot of advice, and that advice can be pretty contradictory. Luckily, we found some pretty wonderful mentors where we live. But it’s still scary, because more than anything else, we want to do right by the bees. You know, we want these bees to survive and thrive and give us honey.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, absolutely. Have you decided where you’re going to put your hives and how many you’re going to have?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, for the first year we’ve just got a one hive set up. And we’re doing the traditional Langstroth hive. It’s the kind where you have boxes stacked on top of one another. And it’s in a corner of our yard that’s kind of the way from our house and near this old dairy barn. But we’re in a neighborhood, so we’re kind of close to neighbors. That’s one of my worries.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Well John, you’re not alone in wanting some tips about beekeeping. Some of our listeners came up with questions on social media and on our Science Friday VoxPop app. And, as a bonus, we’ve got two beekeepers here to help us answer these pollinator questions and perhaps some of yours, John. So let me introduce them.

Timothy Paul Jackson and Nicole Lindsey are beekeepers and co-founders and co-executive directors of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan. Welcome to the show.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Hey, everyone. Thanks for having us today.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you have plenty of experience setting up beehives, because your organization turns vacant lots into bee farms. Is that right? What makes Detroit the place to “bee” for this– the one of many bad puns, I think, today.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Right. Very great pun, by the way. Nicole and I, we’ve been doing this for close to four years. So there’s so much that we’re still learning. But Detroit is the place to be due to the many vacant lots. And all these vacant lots are considered undisturbed land where no one is spraying any harmful chemicals on these vacant lots. There’s very little to no noise or light pollution on these vacant lots.

It’s probably not the best idea for most communities due to them being vacant and left unattended for so many years. But in a positive way, something magical began to happen. It began to attract and boost pollinators and native bees. And in fact, there’s been studies where University of Michigan as well as Michigan State University have studied where bee populations are higher in urban cities like Detroit and it’s contributed to its vacant lots.

We wanted to find ways to reactivate these vacant lots, but find a way to create sustainable communities where they’re inviting for the community, but also serve as habitats, continue to be habitats for our pollinators. And Michigan is home to over 450 native bees. And we want to continue to provide those homes for them, because the number one decline in pollinators– most people will go straight to pests and diseases or chemicals– but the number one is displacement of their habitat.

Our native insects have been displaced and they’ve been gentrified due to construction, development, communities, and roadways. We’ve done away with their habitats and created streets, roads, highways, et cetera, leaving our native pollinators nowhere to go. So we want to be able to continue to provide those homes.

Those numbers are high in the city of Detroit with native bees and pollinator populations. How we secure that is that we buy back those vacant lots through our community partnership with the city of Detroit. So these spots are not just temporary. They will be here and they will stay there to support the next generation for the community and the next generation of pollinators.

IRA FLATOW: Sustainability, you got it. Let’s go to our questions, because there’s so many from our listeners. Deborah from Aurora, Colorado, on our SciFri VoxPop app has a question about how much space is needed to keep a beehive.

DEBORAH: I would like to know what is the minimum amount of space recommended for keeping a beehive, and is it a good idea to do it in a suburban backyard? Thank you.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Here in Detroit, once again– I know many cities vary– but bees need local food, just like communities. Look at bees as people. Call them “beeple.” You don’t want to travel too far to go to a grocery store. You don’t want to drive an hour to go get local food or groceries. You want to find something local within walking distance would be great. But within five or 10 minutes would be perfect.

Same thing with honeybees. They need local food, local forest. They like to look for local groceries in the form of nectar, pollen, water, and propolis. In this case, if you can place a hive– you personally don’t need to have acres and acres of land for the bees. But if you can place your hive in an area of a six-mile or preferably a one and a half mile radius of someone that may have a garden, a flower garden, or even areas of cover crops. That will definitely be helpful to pollinators.

But you yourself, just a little backyard would be great. But definitely I recommend notifying your neighbors. But those bees, they want to travel, like us. We don’t want to sit in the same spot all day. Bees like to travel. They like to forage. All their life, they’re inside the hive. They’re not allowed to leave the hive until they’re 21 days on this Earth. Then they become a forager bee. So they get to go out. They to get some sunshine. They to get some fresh air, view of many beautiful flowers, smell them, taste them. So they want to travel. They want to visit and see different things. It’s a very dangerous job, but it’s also a very exciting job, because you get to leave.

So keep that in mind that they will travel. They can travel up to six miles, but that’s extreme conditions. A good radius for them is about a mile and a half. And they will travel, and they want to visit different flowers. So plant some trees or a place your hive next to a community garden, a floral garden, or in areas where you know there are some local native plants.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Yeah, so also making sure there’s a variety of food, because they need at least three different strands of flowers–

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Pollen sources.

NICOLE LINDSEY: –pollen sources. Because it keeps them actually healthy. Even for us, if we have the same diet over and over again, it’s not going to give us that balanced nutrition that we need. So it’s the same thing with honeybees. So make sure that they have a plethora of flowers.

And plus, like you said, this is their first time being out from within the hive. So of course they get a chance to taste a plethora of flowers. So giving them that variety of flowers to sample and taste and bring back to the hive is great.

Also, you don’t want to have an overabundance of hive. So make sure you have enough source of nectar and pollen for them. So if you have three hives, but your habitat doesn’t support three hives, then your bees are going to be in trouble.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: They’re going to be competing against each other as well.

NICOLE LINDSEY: They’re not going to have enough nectar to build out honeycomb, so that hive is not going to do well.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: And it also competes with our native bees. We do believe in bee diversity and inclusion. So you want to make sure you have enough food for not only your honeybees, but the native bees as well.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Yes, and the native bees are important as well. A lot of people forget about our native bees. So making sure you create habitats for them as well. So our native bees don’t travel as far as honeybees. They pretty much travel extremely local. So like with our mason bees and our leaf cutter bees, they only go about 300 feet. So making sure that you have enough for them as well.

Also, hive placement, so where you’re placing your hive. Make sure you place it in a Southeast direction. Oh, I see you guys– something you want to say.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, no. This is the first time we’ve ever kept bees here. And I’m so glad that you’re giving us this information, because for me and my wife, we’ve got this small, little plot of land, but we’re surrounded by trees. It’s not exactly a suburban neighborhood, but we’re kind of like in a town in the country. And we only have a few places where we can put the hive. So if you could give us some tips of where exactly in a small yard we should put it so that it’s most advantageous for the bee, that would be really helpful.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Partially shady and sunny, for one.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Yeah, so in a Southeast direction. So you want to make sure that when the sun comes up, that sun is hitting on to that hive so it kind of wakes up our forager bees, and they can go to work. But you don’t want to have it directly in the sunlight. That’s why you place it in the Southeast direction.

Also, if you start noticing any mold or wetness within inside of that hive, that means it’s an area that’s full of moisture. So you would need to move that hive, because you don’t want them to have moisture inside of that hive. So as you’re doing hive inspection and you notice a little bit of water in there, or it’s moist in there, that’s a good sign to move that hive out of that area.

IRA FLATOW: Good tip.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Also, when you have your hives, make sure they’re just a little bit tilted in the back end. And so if it rains, that rain doesn’t get down into that hive. It kind of just flows off of the hive.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It flows off. OK, that makes sense. OK, Ira, I’m already getting some good tips here. This is fun. This is good.

IRA FLATOW: This is great. This is good. Well another person who needs a tip is Steven on Twitter who asks, what safety issues are there for keeping bees in relatively dense urban neighborhoods?

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Well, Michigan is home to 450 native bees. Some sting. Bumblebees sting, but very few people get stung by bumblebees unless you really do something bad to a bumblebee. But there’s also over 5,000 species of native bees in the United States and over 20,000 species of bees in the world. So you’re not going to ever get away from bees in these communities or urbanized communities. There are bees everywhere– bees, pollinators, insects. [INAUDIBLE]

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you got to live with them.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: When most people hear the word bees, they think about wasps, they think about hornets.

NICOLE LINDSEY: And yellow jackets.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: They think about people maybe getting stung or maybe allergic reactions. Most people just don’t really have the, I would say, the core ground of education on pollinators or about honeybees, so to speak. So I think it all starts with education or just communication. Communicating with your residents, educating them on bee conservation. Maybe asking them, hey, are you planting anything? Yes I’m planting a lemon tree, or I’m planting an apple tree, or I have a small garden in my backyard. Well guess what? My bees are going to help guarantee increase in your yield with this hive back here.

NICOLE LINDSEY: But also help support those fruits and vegetables from growing properly and in an abundance. You are going to see an increase in your yield when you pair them with honeybees or native bees that pollinate those fruits and vegetables.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: And then one last thing is another way to sweeten the deal is to reward them with some honey to all your residents. They’re going to love that local raw honey right within their own community. I guarantee it.

IRA FLATOW: I got a break in to remind our listeners that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios Yeah, it is really so much different. My brother is a beekeeper, and he gives me as much honey as I can get. But the one thing you notice immediately is it does not taste like the kind that you got in the store. This is really different and really so much better.

John, have you gotten your bee suit yet? How do you know when to get the bee suit, things like that?

JOHN DANKOSKY: So my wife bought me a bee suit. And so we each have our little bee suits. But then we went out to a hive installation with our mentor, and of course, he’s been working with bees for years, and he’s not wearing anything at all. The bees are just all over him. And so I guess that is a really good question. Do you need to have a bee suit? At what time of the year do you actually need to gear up and put on the veil and all the stuff so that the bees don’t sting you?

NICOLE LINDSEY: So that is a great question. So like you said, I’m pretty sure your mentor has probably been beekeeping for some time now. So they’re very comfortable in just being in the hive with nothing. I’ve seen a guy on YouTube, and he just has on his cut off shorts, no shirt in the hive.

Now, as a first time beekeeper, you are going to be kind of terrified of being stung, right. I mean you have to get over that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You’re telling me.

NICOLE LINDSEY: That’s how you get initiated, to me, into being a beekeeper is to bee stung. You might as well get it over with. But please buy you a beekeeping suit. Buy some protection, because you’re going to be a little more comfortable. Because you’re going to be a little uneasy working with them at first. And once you kind of get comfortable, you get used to the bees, and then that’s your prerogative whether or not you want to go inside the hive without a suit or with a suit.

Now our honeybees, they different personalities, just like we do. You might have a hive that is kind of real cool, calm, collected. They chill, and you can just go in without much gear. Then you have the one hive that might be a little antsy. They are a little more defensive.

So just get a suit if this is your first time beekeeping. And then that allows you time to get comfortable, be at ease, because that’s what you want to do. Beekeeping is so relaxing. It is so therapeutic. And you just want to be calm and learn the hive, get inside, be as comfortable as you possibly can. Because when you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.

To me, personally, I think bees read energy. And we have this spiritual connection to bees. So like I said, when you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable. I like to talk to my bees. I speak affirmation over my bees. I like to read with my bees.

Also, another key point in getting your bees familiar with you, because they can recognize your voice, your face, and your scent. When me and Timothy are in the hive– of course, in the summertime, it gets hot in those beekeeping suits– so when we have a new hive, we like to wipe the sweat off our forehead with a paper towel or cloth, stick that little cloth inside of the hive, so the guard bees and the bees inside of the hive can get familiar with our scent. They’re familiar with me talking to them. They can recognize my voice.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: And sometimes it’s in their DNA. So it depends on what kind of bees that you have. Some are more hot, and some are more chill. So if you’re raising bees that are typically hot, it’s in their DNA to be hot. They’re going to be very defensive and very protective. But that’s actually a very good trait to have, because they have a better chance of surviving versus those that are more docile or less aggressive.

NICOLE LINDSEY: So we’re seeing now a lot of beekeepers who raise different type of strands of bees, that they’re adding Africanized DNA within those strands so they they’re more mite resistant. And so some might, like you said, might be a little more defensive than others, depending on the type of strand that you get.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: So no matter how chill you are, and they’re very defensive, it’s in their DNA.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad you brought up the mites, because that’s definitely something we want to talk about. But first, we have to take a quick break. When we come back, more beekeeping questions for our beekeeping guests, Timothy Paul Jackson, Nicole Lindsey, beekeepers and co-founders and co-executive directors of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan. Stay with us.

You’re listening to Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and we are talking about beekeeping. You want to be a beekeeper? A lot of our listeners do as does SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky, who is sitting here with me. And we’re talking about bees, about beekeeping with our guests, Timothy Paul Jackson, Nicole Lindsey beekeepers and co-founders and co-executive directors of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan.

And John, take advantage of having these experts sitting with us. You must have a million questions.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I do. And one of the things that I was shocked by– I know you’ve been talking a lot about native bees that you work with– but when you order bees to start a hive, and if you live in a cold weather state, they’ll often be sent from states further South. We’re getting bees that are coming up from Georgia. So is it a problem to put southern bees in northern hives? Is there some sort of problem either for native bees, or is there some sort of stress that the bees undergo from this long voyage?

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: To be honest with you, yeah. Once again, bees like people. They’re “beeple.” To be quite frank with you, yes. It’s not comfortable. It’s just that bees, they’re resistant. They’ve been around for so many years. They just make it happen. They make it happen.

NICOLE LINDSEY: But what we also tell people, to kind of get experience working with packages– so like you said, a lot of packages come from either Georgia or California or Texas– but also working with a nuc.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Explain what a nuc is for everyone.

NICOLE LINDSEY: So a nuc is–

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: It’s short for nucleus.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Yes, short for nucleus, like a smaller hive box. So like you mentioned, you purchased the Langstroth hive. Within a Langstroth hive, you either have eight to 10 frames. Now with a nuc, you’ll have about four to five frames. Sometimes people put three in there. But it’s kind of like buying a home, and it’s already fully furnished.

So inside of that nuc, the queen is already laying eggs. She’s already introduced to the hive. It’s already ready to go. They already have honey. All you have to do is open up that box, pick out the frames, and you place it inside of a bigger hive.

Now with a package, of course, it depends on your style of installing a package. You either have to take the queen out of her a little queen cage, place her on a frame by herself, pull that cork out, put the marshmallow in or a piece of candy that they give you, and then place her in the hive. Then she has to be introduced to that colony, because she doesn’t belong to that colony. And then some people will either dump the bees in, or they will place that whole box inside of the hive and then just allow the bees to just crawl out.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: The other pros and cons include that those bees may not be climatized.

NICOLE LINDSEY: That’s what I was going to say.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: But that queen is not climatized. It takes her at least two years to become climatized and get used to the weather. So she has to adapt. What’s best, if you can, as a new beekeeper, is to buy your bees local from someone that’s been raising bees where they’ve already overwintered. They’re raising them maybe mite resistant. That way, that queen has already been climatized. In her memory, she already knows how to survive the winter, and she can carry that DNA. And it will also help with the other bees and also future queens as well. So it’s best to buy your bees local. But I know in some cases, we get it however we can. But it’s best to buy your bees local where the queen has already been climatized, and she’s already had success in overwintering.

NICOLE LINDSEY: And then it’s another way to support your local beekeeper as well.

IRA FLATOW: I want to talk about potential pests that beekeepers might come across. I understand Varroa mites– you mentioned them a little bit earlier– can wreak havoc on hives. What do these mites do to the colony, and how do you try to keep them away?

NICOLE LINDSEY: They came from Asia. They hit here in the United States in the ’80s. Everybody pretty much in the world is dealing with mites. Australia was the last to get mites. They got mites back in 2006. So if you are a beekeeper, you can’t avoid mites. Mites are going to be there.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: They only pretty much, for the main part, attack honeybees. They like to go after the drones.

NICOLE LINDSEY: So they tend to go inside of the drone cells. And that’s because, with drones, there the longest to stay inside of the cell. It takes them 24 days to emerge from their cell. And they’re also the thicker or the fattest–

JOHN DANKOSKY: Juicier.

NICOLE LINDSEY: –jucier one, so they tend to go inside of their cell right before the nurse bees close them off so they become adults. But they’ll go inside of the worker bee cells as well.

Also what mites, now sometimes you may not see–

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Wait, before you get to that. With the drone, this mite– whatever or whoever created mites is pretty smart, because they know that the drone doesn’t feed themselves or clean themselves off–

NICOLE LINDSEY: Within the first four days.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Yes, and they can visit any hive. Any worker bee will let them in. And that’s another reason why– they can carry disease that way by drones visiting hives.

IRA FLATOW: We got a VoxPop from a beekeeper, Carl from Long Island, who wants to bring attention to problems first-time beekeepers can cause for neighbors if their hives get mites.

CARL: People in urban and suburban locations can cause problems for their neighbors and their community if they try to manage honeybees when they don’t know enough. For example, a colony being overwhelmed by tiny organ eating mites is not only the bees’ and the beekeepers’ problem, but because a colony can become what we call a mite bomb, the untrained novice creates a problem for other beekeepers in the community as well as honeybees that have found a home in nearby wild.

IRA FLATOW: He’s concerned that if you’re not a fastidious beekeeper, you’re going to be creating problems for other beekeepers with the mites coming from your hive.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: That’s absolutely correct. As beekeepers, we are to be responsible with testing and managing and treating and monitoring the mites and pests and diseases, because you can spread them.

IRA FLATOW: OK John, you got any last questions for our guests?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, because I’ve heard about these Varroa mites ever since we started this, Ira– this is really important– so what do you do to get rid of them? I’ve heard from some beekeepers who say, you know, you got to just let nature take its course. Other people say there’s chemicals that you use. But then there’s harsh chemicals, there’s more organic chemicals. What do you folks use to try to control the Varroa mites?

NICOLE LINDSEY: John, I will tell you this. As a first time beekeeper, every time you talk to a beekeeper, they all are going to tell you something different.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You know, I’ve learned this so far.

NICOLE LINDSEY: So just come to a common consensus when you put your research together. But it’s all about how you want to treat your hive and what works best–

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: For you.

NICOLE LINDSEY: –for you.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: In our first year– we’re naturalists. We wanted to find ways to not use chemicals. We wanted to find ways that can create a habitat that will create an ecological balance. Because whenever there’s a problem in your environment, it may be lacking something that supports that biodiversity. So we wanted to give it a try. And we were doing pretty well with our hives not treating our first year. It’s just that we lost one of the hives for not treating.

And that was a learning experience. Our first year, we kept three hives. Our second year, we ramped it up to 18. And now we’re currently managing 45. And there’s a lot of challenges, but there’s also lots of successes. But one thing that we did learn is that we started treating. And we started learning about a more natural way, or somewhat natural way, using ursolic acid and vaporizing our hives. But not just doing it one time towards the late summer. We start early in the spring, and we test and we monitor in the spring, summer, and fall. We don’t ever stop.

So I think that’s one thing that separated us from the beginning. One of the differences that we learned is not just looking for mites and just testing or testing from mites and then treating in the late summer or early fall, but starting this initiative early as possible, in early spring. Right now, as soon as possible.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Well, John, I hope you got a lot of your questions answered today.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I got a lot answered. I’ll come back. I’ll send you guys some honey, once we finally have some.

TIMOTHY PAUL JACKSON: Same here. We would love to.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Yeah, we’ll do the same.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Send some this way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Absolutely, Ira. I got your address.

IRA FLATOW: John Dankosky, along with Timothy Paul Jackson and Nicole Lindsay, beekeepers and co-founders of Detroit Hives in Detroit, Michigan. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Great stuff.

NICOLE LINDSEY: Thanks for having us. We loved it.

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